In technology, inherent bias can be hard to root out. Our tech tends to reflect the people who create it — their perspectives and experiences shape how products are designed. Whether you’re talking about a smart city or a smart speaker, the systems that underpin our lives are the sum of designers’ decisions; inequality and exclusion are often the unintentional consequences of those choices. To address this, organizations, experts, and regulators have worked to make technology more accessible for people with different physical and cognitive abilities; the tech industry has taken meager steps to diversify its workforce. But technology products and services are still largely built by a narrow slice of society, and it shows: from racial prejudice in artificial intelligence to the harassment of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as gender minorities in digital spaces, technology often exacerbates exclusion.
This problem will not go away on its own. As digital platforms driven by AI, mixed reality, and voice interactions increasingly influence society, technologists need to recognize that the problem will only grow more pronounced. That’s why designers such as Antionette Carroll, who has championed the idea of designing for equity, argue that the design process itself — how tech is created — must be redesigned. If we want to ensure that no individual or community is harmed or left behind, we must intentionally design our products to be inclusive.
It can feel daunting to add “combating systemic exclusion and inequity” to the already challenging process of creating a product, but there are practical ways to advance accessibility, safety, and belonging. I spoke with design and tech leaders with experience at organizations ranging from Microsoft to Airbnb about actions that any product leader or team can take to create more inclusive products and services.
1. Design with excluded and diverse communities, not for them.
“Empathizing” with user communities to understand their needs and challenges is traditionally the first step in design thinking and human-centered product development. But this approach can lead designers astray. When creating accessible experiences for people who have very different abilities, circumstances, and identities, “we don’t actually think empathy is the best [approach],” says Bryce Johnson, Inclusive Lead at Microsoft Devices, who focuses on accessibility. “It can be really difficult for teams to empathize without relating their own life experiences, which biases their thinking. I can never truly experience or get in the shoes of a woman who’s experienced childbirth.”
To compensate for this, designers and technologists must “design with, rather than for people,” says Johnson. “We should rely on compassion – we have to listen and take people as the expert.” First spend some time reflecting on your product team’s biases, then identify and build relationships with people who are traditionally excluded from the product development process. Trust their knowledge, lived experiences, and perspectives, and use it to direct product strategy and development. Product leaders must empower intended communities of use to make product decisions, rather than just validating them.
Ideally, a process like this will create a product that allows people to engage with it flexibly— and keep customizing even after a product is launched. Apple’s built-in accessibility feature VoiceOver is a great example of what this can look like. It allows people with different abilities, including those with low vision, to navigate platforms in a way that meets their needs — in this case, through audio narration and Braille output. The technology industry should look to how video streaming services have built more flexible experiences, and gaming, where people regularly customize their hardware, identities, and environments. Everyone benefits when products are more accessible and flexible.
How to do it: Form community task forces at the onset of product development, actively strengthen connections with community members, and use participatory and co-creation methods throughout the process. Compensate community members for their knowledge, expertise, and time. Build community members’ capacity to create their own solutions. Facilitate flexible and customizable use once a product is launched.
2. Foster belonging through representation.
One approach to preventing exclusion at the product level is to use default representations to minimize the impact of stereotypes and tokenism. “[In] the illustrations for a lot of companies and brands, the default skin tone had always been light skin. We defaulted to dark skin,” shares Jenny Lam, SVP of Brand User Experience at Oracle. “The default makes a big difference.” Some technologists are also mitigating gender role and cultural stereotypes in voice technologies: Google Assistant, for instance, labels voice assistants by color (“Purple”) rather than gender (“British female”).
Representation isn’t just a question of who appears in ads and illustrations — it’s also at work in the language of visual cues and aesthetics that a company uses. “What is held up on a pedestal in terms of aesthetics in digital design, it’s really European: Bauhaus, clean lines, sparseness,” says Lam. In creating Oracle’s novel Redwood design system, the foundational brand, visual, and user experience guidelines for products that Oracle creates, “We literally have customers in every country in the world and we wanted that global story to be reflected in our visual narrative….For us, that translated to warmer colors rooted in shades and imagery that were inspired by art found around the world, not just from the western world.”
How to do it: Product leaders and practitioners must carefully consider representation across all levels of their systems and products. Reflect on whether your product privileges or tokenizes certain communities’ identities, aesthetics, or cultures as a starting point to achieving balance. Avoid system defaults that make assumptions about people’s identities or unnecessarily force them to categorize themselves.
3. Strengthen culture, training, and processes.
To build products that serve more people, start by raising questions about gaps in your organization’s composition. “Every leader and professional should ask themselves, ‘How diverse is your team?’ ” says Oen Michael Hammonds, Design Principal at IBM’s Employee Experience Design program. “What are their socioeconomic and educational backgrounds? If everyone on your team is the same race, gender, or background, you will get a smaller pocket of innovation compared to the ideas that teams with different perspectives and life experiences would bring.”
Diverse teams must also leverage workflows and tools that intentionally consider inclusion. “It’s starting with the mindset, the training, the onboarding,” says Oracle’s Lam. “Then it’s about building a system that scales with that mindset baked in. Start out with that strong, inclusive point of view at the beginning and don’t treat it as a checkbox.”
How to do it: Product leaders must staff diverse teams and support them through capacity building, tools, and processes that scale inclusion. Practitioners must actively identify and eliminate instances of exclusion. Continuous education and training can help: “In practice, this might mean making teaching tools such as bias-busting linters or plug-ins that offer alternative language proposals when they find ableist language in your product,” suggests Hayley Hughes, UX Manager at Shopify, who has also led design system work at IBM and Airbnb.
4. Establish accountability.
Accountability is essential to any goal. When teams establish clear inclusion commitments upfront, it creates incentives to be proactive rather than reactive. “Before any team gets going, they should specify what they mean by inclusion,” emphasizes Kat Vellos, a product advisor and senior UX designer. “Are you focusing on accessibility, cultural competence, or racial bias? If you’re more specific, it’s easier to assess your efforts.” Organizations and teams are also more likely to take action if they pair long-term, value-aligned goals and short-term, achievable goals with specific plans.
Accountability should be a continuous, collective process. “Every product team and professional should always be asking, ‘Is this accessible? Who is this leaving out?’” says Vellos. “The responsibility of inclusion should be shared and a part of everyone’s success metrics.”
How to do it: Product leaders must define measurable inclusion goals and plans for products and teams. All product team members must share responsibility for progress. Performance reviews should reflect the extent to which product team members advocated and accounted for inclusion. Digital platforms and members of the public should hold product leaders accountable – app stores should facilitate inclusion-based product ratings and comparisons, exerting public pressure to demonstrate improvement.
5. Normalize inclusion at a system level.
People usually do not like to stand out. Research shows that people and organizations will alter their behaviors to fit in with what is seen as the norm. Positioning inclusion as a mainstream practice or organizational value could drive change and deepen employees’ commitments to their organizations. One way to normalize inclusion is by highlighting relevant case studies and successes. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently launched a global map where cities around the world can share their civic innovation initiatives. This not only serves as inspiration and makes innovation seem common – it also allows people to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.
Norms are also reinforced through the systems and tools that technologists use daily. “A design system is a mechanism for scaling intent and repeating certain outcomes over time,” says Hughes. “If you define success by every person’s ability to access and use your product in the ways that work best for them, that’s what you’ll scale. If you define success merely by whether something looks good, then that’s what you’ll scale.”
How to do it: Product leaders and practitioners should consistently share best practices and align their work with inclusive outcomes such as dignity and accessibility as they create and apply design systems. Highlight case studies of inclusion, both internally at an organization and across the industry. Additionally, create design systems intentionally so that they scale inclusion. “Teams want to be able to build components that express the widest range of needs and contextual factors possible,” says Hughes. As your team accounts for variation in how your product is used, extend existing design system components, rather than creating and coding new components from scratch.
Taking Action, Together
As Melinda Gates writes in The Moment of Lift, “Most of us fall into one of the same three groups: the people who try to create outsiders, the people who are made to feel like outsiders, and the people who stand by and don’t stop it.” Just as we cannot end racism by stopping one act of violence against a Black, Indigenous, or person of color, we cannot prevent exclusion or bias by focusing only on the colors of user interface elements. Everyone involved in product development needs to take responsibility for creating inclusive technology.